Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, May 10, 2001

Like many Russian pianists, Vladimir Feltsman's
first music teacher was mom. Feltsman performs
with the Honolulu Symphony Sunday and Tuesday.

Mat' i syn*

Mothers are a strong force behind
success, but even Russian composer
Sergei Prokofiev's mom took
a hands-off approach

By Scott Vogel

In honor of this weekend's holiday, it's instructive to remember that most beauty-pageant winners, child prodigies and classical musicians owe their success to the efforts of a doting mother.

But Maria Prokofiev, mother of Sergei -- the celebrated Soviet composer whose works the Honolulu Symphony is featuring this Sunday -- was no pushy stage mom.

In fact, her strategy for encouraging young Sergei's musical talent was ahead of its time, the sort of approach even a mainstream publication like Time magazine might approve of (see the April 30 cover story, "The Quest for a Superkid").

Giving the thumbs-down to accelerated nursery schools, Mozart tapes, flashcards and other brain-building drills for babies, Time traveled to the frontiers of child development expertise, quoting psychologists who now wish we'd "let kids be kids" -- that sort of thing -- rather than bombard them with CD-ROMs, videos, etc.

But Maria Prokofiev knew all that instinctively. Although it was clear from Sergei's toddlerhood on that he had a clear propensity for music (he used to lie awake at night listening to his mom play Beethoven on the piano), she never pressured him to study.

In fact, Maria deliberately refrained from teaching her son the piano until the age of seven, preferring that the child discover music's pleasures on his own.

The approach certainly worked in Sergei's case. By the time he was 13 -- and his mother realized that his abilities were fast outpacing her pedagogical skills -- the young Prokofiev had mastered much of the piano repertory, becoming the youngest student ever accepted at the prestigious St. Petersburg Conservatory. Thus proving that even the most mild-mannered parent can catch the superkid bug, however, Maria and Sergei promptly fled the small farming town where they'd lived, leaving Mr. Prokofiev and the pastoral life far behind.

Just eight years later, Sergei would begin writing some of his greatest work, including the challenging and ferocious first piano concerto, which the Russian pianist Vladimir Feltsman will tackle this weekend with Samuel Wong at the podium. Firmly in the tradition of great-art-before-its-time, the work was once considered cacophonous, leading the New York Times to sniff: "There were moments when the piano and orchestra made sounds that evoked not only the downfall of empires, but also of fine crockery, the fragments flying in all directions."

Hardly thin-skinned, Prokofiev relished the opportunity to shock both audiences and critics, something he would do for the rest of his career. The golden child had become a permanent enfant terrible.

But this is all beside the point. The real question: Is a devoted mother behind every great Russian musician?

"No, but possibly every second musician," said Vladimir Feltsman, whose own mother died last year at the age of 80. Like Prokofiev, Feltsman's first teacher was his mother, a Moscow Conservatory-trained musician who, despite her pedigree, was no taskmaster. "I don't think I was under any pressure. If there was a pressure, it was a pressure from within."

What Feltsman instead remembers is a "wonderful woman" who began teaching him piano fundamentals at the "not terribly young" age of 6. But while his own experience was obviously a happy one, he's reluctant to generalize on the subject of early musical training, saying it could either be useful or terrible depending on parental attitudes and the particular child involved. He's far more certain about the further course of a youngster's musical career.

"As they grow, (children) need to get a separate teacher. Because that relationship, when it happens, of teacher and student -- or rather teacher and disciple -- is very important." After a year of his mother's instruction, Feltsman himself moved on to a teacher outside the family, although his mother continued to sit with young Vladimir while he practiced during the following few years.

By the time he was 11, Feltsman had made his debut with the Moscow Philharmonic, and his rapid rise in the piano world seemed inevitable.

Things changed in 1979, however, when he applied for an exit visa from the Soviet Union. Not only was the visa refused, Feltsman became persona non grata in the Soviet music scene, laboring in obscurity for eight years before finally being granted permission to emigrate to the United States.

Happily, he resumed public performances in 1987 with a recital at Carnegie Hall, and his career as a major pianist was launched in earnest once more.

Although he eschews association with Prokofiev's rebellious temperament (the composer shocked his conservatory teachers with his audacious graduation piece -- his first piano concerto), Feltsman concedes that he has a special affection for the Soviet composer, whom he believes to be one of the greatest of recent times.

"What he had was a wonderful melodic gift, a gift for writing beautiful melodies. Very few composers of the 20th century have had that particular gift."

The New York Times of old, of course, might disagree, and even Feltsman concedes that the first piano concerto is not one of the master's greatest pieces. Still, it makes for a very exciting 15 minutes, a fast-paced and fanciful tour through the history of music that is packed with wit, pyrotechnics and -- believe it or not -- an ample dose of humor. ("I think it is absolutely hilarious. It's a bit kitschy for me, but brilliantly kitschy.")

But then, in a more sober moment, reflecting upon a career that's now spanned three decades and taken him to the four corners of the globe, Feltsman admitted that classical musicianship is a very difficult life, even if you never have to fight the Iron Curtain.

And while it's a bit too soon to determine which career direction his own progeny might take, Feltsman seems positively relieved that his 18-year-old son's interests run from philosophy to psychology to religion.

The one thing the younger Feltsman isn't interested in becoming? A classical musician.

"And that pleases me greatly," his father said.

In concert

What: Vladimir Feltsman and the Honolulu Symphony, Samuel Wong conducting
Program: Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite; Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat; Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15
When: 4 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave.
Cost: $15 to $55
Call: 792-2000

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* Mother and son (in Russian)

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